Thursday, October 24, 2013

Here’s a case for making out why we’re in the Golden Age Of Bullshit. Or how it is all-too-easy for us to kid ourselves.

There was a void in my life. Damages had finished, and I needed to fill the void. Ray Donovan did so for a week or two, but that has only been through on series, and as I had the week off with very little to do except nothing at my own slow pace, I watched an episode, and sometimes two, a day. When it finished (and the finale was good, but gets an A- rather than an A+), the void beckoned again.

Then I recalled a series which I had read about several times while proof-reading the TV pages. The paper trails several programmes from all channels as ‘highlights’, though given that all-too-often a programme might be something as scintillating and attractive as a ‘a month in the life of a council dog warden’ dragged out over five or six episodes, you might guess why I rarely, if ever, bother with terrestrial TV these days and prefer to watch series on the net. (If you think my, admittedly fictional, example is a tad exaggerated, I can assure you it isn’t: quite recently one channel had a six-part series on the working life of a town planner, its tribulations and difficulties. There are wall-to-wall fucking cookery programmes – ‘making a jus can get no tougher. This is cooking for the big boys’, that kind of crap.)

The series was an HBO production called The Newsroom. Well, I thought, I’ll give it a whirl. But, dear reader, a whirl is all I gave it, and all I shall be giving it. It is from the stable of Aaron ‘The West Wing’ Sorkin, and it shows. The dialogue is superficially smart, but in fact pretty damn awful. Folk don’t talk like folk, but as folk would talk in an Aaron Sorkin TV series. I gave up on The West Wing pretty damn quickly as I got fed up with all the smart one-liners everyone had, the hip speak, the innumerable two-second conversations the characters had with each other while walking past each other quickly in corridors. Oh, and the oh-so-liberal attitidues. I thought it was bollocks.

The Newsroom got and will continue to get equally short shrift from me. I saw about 20 minutes before I turned off and went looking for some drying paint to observe as likely to be rather more entertaining. The first episode begins with a TV anchorman ‘losing it’ and coming out with a long rant about how the good ole’ US of A just isn’t the marvellous, superb country it once was. Here is that speech.


I didn’t actually retch, but it was a damn close thing. The world’s greatest artists? Cared about neighbours? Would that be Cuba? And take good note of the piano tinkling away in the background.And although I went on to watch another ten minutes of that episode, I knew The Newsroom and I were not a match made in Heaven.

This speech should have warned me. But then came the theme music and that, dear reader, was all the proof I needed that The Newsroom would be thoroughly and slickly dishonest cack. Here it is.

There are only two points to be made here:

1 Nothing good can come of a series with them music as seriously schmaltzy as this.

2 Strings are always - always - a no-no. I can never take strings seriously, and nor should anyone else.

After sitting through that theme music, I sat through another ten minutes, but that was my lot. No more The Newsroom for me now or ever. And please forgive the rather abrupt ‘fade out’.

. . .

That speech was the killer. It is one so grossly dishonest, so utterly misleading about the US that the Sorkin should be prosecuted. Certainly, the Yanks aren’t the only ones to hark back sentimentally to a spurious golden age. Many Brits are still firmly convinced that the British Empire was wholly a force for good whose one purpose was to bring civilisation to those parts of the world which were still going through a dark age. But whereas Britain has finally and firmly got all that shite out of its system, the US still has a long, long way to go. I don’t doubt that when assorted liberals in the US tuned into the first episode of The Newsroom and heard the anchorman’s speech, they thought to themselves - with a manly sigh if they were men, with concealed tear if they were women - ‘he’s right, you know, what has happened to our dear, dear old country. The only problem is that there never as a US golden age when the New World’s prime and almost sole objective was to bring peace, stability, order and humanity to the world.

I shall restrict myself to a few examples, but there are many. Far from the Civil War being about ‘emancipating the black man’ as if still fondly claimed, it was about the Northern States consolidating their hold on power. And a great many bastards in the North made great fortunes out of the Civil War. For many of the North’s businessmen, the ‘unfairness’ of slavery had absolutely nothing to do with inhumanity to blacks, and everything to do with the fact that landowners in the southern states who worked slaves were getting labour from free, gratis, buckshee, while they were obliged to pay their workers a wage, however small and pitiful.

After the Civil War, far from being freed, as innumerable young US kids are proudly informed, the fortunes of the blacks got worse if that could be possible. None got their land and their mule. Certainly, they were no longer slaves in name, but they were still slaves in fact. Just listen to Billie Holiday’s rendering of the song Strange Fruit to remind yourselves just how liberated blacks were in the 100 years following the end of the Civil War. Then there’s the odd matter of the American/Spanish war.

Ostensibly this was to help colonies rid themselves of the Spanish yoke. In practice it was just a takeover from one old colonial power by a newer colonial power, with a sharp eye on creating markets for its goods. Or how about the little matter of the extermination of the Native Americans by the good, freedom-loving white folk? For scale, if not in execution, it rivals the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis.

All three are examples of why the TV anchorman’s liberal cri de coeur for a return to the good, ole’ honest US was 24-carat bullshit. Incidentally, the above is in no way intended to make out that the US’s enemies are any better. To keep things simple, just regard it as a warning to be very wary of anything wit such schmaltzy, syrupy them music.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Woodstock? Just more proof, if proof were needed, of mankind's infallible tendency to delude itself (and then some)

The not-so-astounding news I have just read on the BBC News website is that tickets for Glastonbury 2014 have already sold out and have done so in record time. This item caught my eye because a night or two ago I watched Taking Woodstock (here, one of several such sites in which you can watch films completely illegally but, crucially, without spending a penny (U.S ‘cent’), but this is the one I almost always use (and remember to install some kind of ad-block to stop all those malware infected ads popping up).

Taking Woodstock was directed by by Ang Lee and distinctly underwhelmed the critics, and I can see why. I should imagine that most of those critics are under 50, immune to all that hippy-dippy love-and-peace man bollocks and none of them are the hippy bores whose interminable reminiscences and memoirs of the ‘peace era’ made reading the Sunday papers in the Seventies and Eighties such a dull and dispiriting experience.

Thankfully, quite a few of that generation of ageing hippies are now dead, although every so often one will pop up on TV and drone on about ‘how we all started it, man’ until someone has the good sense to shut him up. And it was always a ‘him’ - the much-vaunted free love at the time wasn’t so much the liberation of women but the liberation of men from any kind of responsibility and respect for the female gender. Of course women have sexual urges just as strong as men - and I wished to God I had realised that rather earlier in my life - but with ‘the pill’ still not widely available at the time, they were always the ones left to carry the can when they found themselves up the duff, and the prospect and fear of that will have meant they couldn’t act on those urges quite as often a they might have liked. The trouble was the ‘free love’ doctrine was simply an extra strategy to persuade ‘a chick’ to get her knickers off and spread her legs. As for the peace, well up to a point Lord Copper.

The ‘Sixties generation’ was remarkably, often violently, uncharitable to their parents’ generation, and I don’t think it occurred to any of them for a second that their mums and dads (US ‘moms’ and ‘pops’) were just like them though, except that they were two decades older, and as young lads and lasses wanted just what they wanted. The trouble was that after World War II - especially here in Europe - in which many family and friends had died, they wanted nothing but a quiet life, the quieter the better and, if at all possible, without unplanned death of any kind. Of course, when you are 18 and bursting with hormones a quiet life is that last thing you want, but then nor did their parents then they were that age 20 to 30 years earlier.

Unfortunately at that age, just when I was desperately growing my hair as long as possible and making sure I always had a lump of dope in my matchbox, the boys were being marched off to war and possible death. Ironically, the war perhaps brought greater freedoms for women, who had to man (Lord, I can’t believe I just used that word, but I shall leave it in for the sake of the irony) the factories and offices vacated by all the cannon fodder being shipped to Europe and tasted greater independence. But this is all a long way from Woodstock and the supposedly great cultural event it was.

. . .

I have never been to Glastonbury and, in theory, never will. I say ‘in theory’ because I am now 63 and I can’t imagine the young folk rolling around in the rain and mud and paying extortionate prices for goddam-awful burgers while listening to music of which the major constituent is a booming bass would want a cynical, dyspeptic old

A rare picture of me at 14. Note especially the joint I’m smoking and the V sign on my chest

fart like me hanging around. Which is fine by me because even if they did, I really wouldn’t want to go. And if Ang Lee’s portrayal of Woodstock is anything like the real thing, I’m bloody glad I didn’t get to go there, either.

When it comes to listening to music or, as once I did, going clubbing, give me a small, intimate club. I dislike gangs and crowds at the best of times, and the idea of spending more than a minute in the company of ten thousand other people, many of whom can’t wait to wallow in mud, strikes me as simply bizarre.

Then there’s a music. Many bands are great live, but many are not. Many need the resources of studio technology to sound even halfway decent and die a pitiful death when asked to perform in public, often reduced to a boring two-chord riff to a mid-tempo 4-4 beat. And even if they are half-decent playing live, the conditions of a festival, the distance you might be from the stage, the fact that bass notes carry, but treble notes do not, a badly balanced sound scheme, the vagaries of the weather, and - believe it or not - out-of-tune instruments can all add up to a pretty piss-poor performance.

How does he know all this, I hear you ask, if he has never been to a festival? Quite simply because I’ve quite often caught festival performances on TV. Well, isn’t it a fact that television rarely does justice to live music? Perhaps, but I’m not going to risk goddam-awful burgers, portaloos overflowing with shit and crap, and the combined body odour of a hundred thousand people just to find out.

. . .

As for new direction the Love Generation apparently took and which, in that vacuous phrase often employed by TV and the press, ‘changed the course of history’, again up to a point, Lord Copper. Sadly, the new direction was just the old direction in longer hair. The relevant cliche here is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

As the love generation itself found out here in Britain at the end of the Seventies when the punks stuck two fingers up at their hippy-dippy older brothers and sisters, and gobbed at them to boot in case they had missed the point, there’s nothing a new generation loves better than to put as much distance as possible between itself and the older generation. You like white? Well, we’ll like black. You want love ’n peace? Well, we’ll like violence and abrasion. You like slow, dreamy, meandering ballads? Well, here’s a two-minute piece of cacophonous noise you can stick up your arse and then fuck off!

Ironically, as an excellent BBC Four series chronicled a few months ago, the principle of plus ça change, c’est plus la même chose still held true and, it seemed, within a matter of months the lure of big bucks got many a gobbing, spitting, pogoing punk band to see the light, sign on the dotted line and ensure that the gobbing, spitting and pogoing became safe enough for public consumption and ensure you were still home before midnight for a mug of cocoa and a good night’s sleep.

Further, not even within a matter of months but, it seemed, within a matter of hours, the safe punk music had metamorphasised into something entirely different. And how the hippies hated it. Now in their early thirties, desperate to persuade themselves that the mortgage, house, pension plan and station wagon (UK ‘shooting brake’) are just a passing phase, man, I’m still a rebel at heart, they could not believe and could not accept that they were nothing more than history, taken seriously be no one but themselves and their peers.

Good Lord, life is cruel.

. . .

Why this rant, you must be asking yourselves (and I am most certainly asking myself)? Well, the answers are both highly personal and very straightforward. I shall save the highly personal answer, perhaps, for another time, but the straightforward answer is this: when I turned 18 and was released from my public school with nothing but a posh accent and a set of illusions as long as your arm, it was 1968. The Vietnam War was well underway, as were ‘student politics’ (and whatever happened to them?), and the Sixties, with barely two more years to go, was getting into its stride. All I wanted to do was grow my hair, lose my cherry, and smoke dope (and to tell the truth, I hadn’t even thought about that last half as much as mentioning it here might make it seem).

For some reason, I found all the hippy-dippy stuff, all the peace-and-love routine and the we’re-going-to-change-the-world fantasy wholly and utterly unconvincing. All that interested me was the dope (cannabis, hash, not heroin) and acid. That was it. And to complicate it just a little further, I didn’t hang out with the ‘druggies’ because the druggies were dull, dull, dull. All they wanted to talk about was drugs. I remember walking into the students union one afternoon to find a table of druggies who had all dropped downers, all sitting around motionless and all as boring as fuck. If this is what drugs downers do to you, I remember thinking, well fuck downers. Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull!

It wasn’t that I didn’t get it. I did get it, and because I got it, I couldn’t help asking myself ‘who the hell do they think they are kidding?’ and others ‘who the hell do you think you are kidding?’ This wasn’t some great intellectual insight, it was nothing more than a gut feeling. And, dear friends, whether you agree with me or not, it’s a gut feeling I still have: who the hell do we think we are kidding except ourselves?

So when I see film’s such as Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, and when I read, as I did today, that tickets for Glastonbury 2014 are already ‘sold out’ - Glastonbury 2014 being, of course, the successor to Glastonbury 2013 and Glastonbury 2009 and Glastonbury 1998 and the rest where it is now necessary to hire security firms to patrol the ‘perimeter fence’, where corporations can now block-book the prime sites, where keen young cunts appear on TV, the radio and in the press to laud the ‘business opportunities’ Glastonbury has brought and can still bring, where Glastonbury is now as much a part of the Establishment social calendar as Wimbledon, Ascot, the Mojos and the birth of a new royal baby - I am again reminded that individually some are quite bright, but as a gang, a crowd, an electorate, an audience, a congregation, a market we are all as thick as shit.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How do you overcome an addiction? Simple: develop another. (But read right to the end to understand just what the fuck I’m talking about)

First there was The Sopranos. Others might care to cite Six Foot Under (or whatever it’s called) and they might well be right. But as this is about my addiction to a recent spate of excellent telly series – with the emphasis on my (and, I must point out, this is my blog you are reading - start your own if you have a problem with that) and as I never saw Six Foot Under (or whatever it’s called) or any of the others, and as The Sopranos was the first of the new breed I saw, you can cite as many ‘others’ for all you like, but for me The Sopranos was the daddy of them all. Capice?

This is not, and never will be, the place where description is reduced to such vacuous terms as ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’, and it would be ironic if such intelligent and excellent series such as The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, The Wire, Damages and Ray Donovan were reduced to being lauded in such playground language (and whenever anything is described to me by anyone as ‘amazing’ and ‘awesome’ I immediately know full well that it isn’t at all anything of the kind). But anyone who has been watching television in the past 43 and has taken in such standards as Kojak, Hawaii Five O, Columbo, Dynasty (which I never saw), Dallas (which I also didn’t see) and the rest and then progressed to The Sopranos and the rest will realise (of I hope has realised) that much of TV has undergone a seachange in terms of quality writing, acting, story and direction.

Ironically, it was the development of cable TV and other forms of subscription TV which allowed the change to happen. Without the need, because of the all-powerful advertiser’s demands, to play it safe, to follow a formula and write to schedule with a mini cliffhanger every five minutes just before the ad break (of which there were and are only four and hour here in Britain on commercial TV, but of which there are far, far more in the good ole’ US of A and elsewhere) quality could at last take over. The cable and subscriber channels made their money from subscribers, and although they, too, were and are ultimately subject to viewing figures, they and the various creators of the series they produced had much more freedom simply to try to be excellent. They could reflect life far more truthfully by allowing their characters to cuss and swear and say fuck and call others a cunt. They could show people who were having sex as actually doing so in the altogether. But that was and is trivial in comparison to the real artistic freedoms working for an ad-less cable and subscriber channel gave them.

They were no longer constrained to the 60-minute format, which because of the ad breaks meant, in fact, just 40 minutes of drama. But there was more. Granted that their audiences were smaller, counted in their one and one and half millions as compared to the tens of millions a mainstream network attracted, that audience was by and large – ahem – a little more intelligent and artistically receptive. That new audience didn’t necessarily want everything to be spelled out, to follow a formula and to be neatly wrapped up in 60 – i.e. 40 – minutes of predictable drama. They were prepared to take on trust – when initially presented with quality writing, acting and direction – that what came next would be up to scratch and thus did not mind there not being a formula.

This new freedom attracted the talent. And the talent which made its way to such series attracted even more talent – actors, directors and writers certainly, but also the backroom folk without whom actors, directors and writers could not function. A ‘story’ could be expounded, at the very least, over 13 hours of broadcast time (that is 13 one-hour episodes per series. The Sopranos ran to six/seven series, The Wire to five, of which the last was not a patch on the first four, Deadwood to three – and then inexplicably cancelled – and Damages to five).

This allowed the writers far, far greater freedom to develop character, to allow plot to evolve from character, to do the kind of thing they must surely always have wanted to do but which the constraints of the 60/40-minute format simply didn’t allow them to do. There are many such series, quite apart from Six Foot Under, I didn’t see. Everyone raved about The West Wing, but I found it a tad irritating. For one thing all the characters were so bloody hip and cool I often, in the few episodes I did see, didn’t have a bloody clue as to what they were talking about. And I also got rather pissed off with a kind of mannered direction where characters would talk to each other briefly while walking past each other in a corridor.

. . .

I started with The Sopranos, although, ironically, I didn’t get it until series two, and only saw series one in retrospect. Here in Britain it had been initially trailed, rather unfortunately, as a ‘comedy drama’. Well, it was at times very, very funny (in one episode, directed my Steve Buscemi, who also had a part later on as a cousin of Tony Soprano, a Russian gangster who proves to be very difficult to kill is described as a having been a former member of Russia’s Interior Ministry (i.e. I should imagine a member of Russia domestic secret service). This eventually becomes convoluted in a phone call to a character who is none too bright as having been an ‘interior decorator’ which strikes his oppo as odd as ‘his apartment was shit’), but it wasn’t by a long chalk primarily a comedy. I got round the problem of occasionally not understanding both the argot and the New Jersey accents by videoing – this was, after all the end of the 20th century – each episode and simply re-running a part I didn’t catch.

Notwithstanding the series I didn’t see, to which I must now add NYPD Blues, which I also understand was very good and predated The Sopranos (and one of whose writers, David Milch, went on to create Deadwood) I generally accept until someone emails to inform me otherwise that The Sopranos set the standard and set the bar very high.

. . .

The most recent complete series I have watched was Damages, and I have to say I was blown away. I must at this point come clean and admit that as I, a little earlier, castigated Seventies and Eighties television series as being formulaic, it is only fair to admit that the essential schtick of Damages and the device which allowed the tension and expectations to be ratcheted up ever higher becomes pretty damn obvious pretty damn soon.

The flashback and flash forward technique is pretty much a con, yet the whole thing is done with such astounding aplomb that you really don’t care. It’s rather like how on the one hand we find it very easy to forgive without a second thought those irritating habits of family and friends we like and are fond of, yet on the other hand ruthlessly and without mercy (which is what ‘ruthlessly’ actually means, but never mind) condemn the slightest flaw in those we dislike and whom we wish evil.

Damages ran to five series (and was taken over by a second cable/subscription channel for series four and five). Central to its success and sheer enjoyment are surely Glenn Close as Patty Hewes and Rose Byrne as Ellen Parsons, but having said that Glenn Close is astounding. I would particularly single out as evidence of her talent the scene in series five where she confronts her father, who is on his deathbed, and resolutely refuses to do what the rest of us wimps might regard as the right thing, which would be to forgive him. All I can do here is to urge you to try to catch that scene. I cannot describe just how good Close is. The scene lasted for around five minutes and was done in one take and was not (as far as I can tell, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t) edited. Watch it. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating.

The Kessler brothers and Daniel Zelman first managed to get Damages accepted for a first series, but at that point they really cannot have known for how many series it might run. In the event it ran for five. Each series is distinct in as far as there is a distinct ‘story’ (i.e. legal case) in each. And each series could well be seen in isolation and not just thoroughly entertain, but also succeed. So it is really quite remarkable how, over the five series, they have managed to make a whole of the thing.

You don’t really need to know the back story to appreciate any of them, although it would help. What is so satisfying about the whole five series in toto is who it rounds of the story of two woman, Patty Hewes and Ellen Parsons, who are very alike, yet individual, and which portrays and conveys their relationship as well as their peculiar personal character traits in extraordinary fashion. I stress that the talent and vision of the Kesslers and Zelman is such that they could not have know how many series Damages would run to. Yet when series five concludes, it rounds of the story in an extraordinarily honest way. There is no pat conclusion, no happy ending. Each – by which I should say both characters, Hewes and Parsons – are true to themselves. Hewes, a complex, ruthless, yet vulnerable woman carries on as only she could and would carry one. Parsons, also complex, does something similar, but she is not Hewes and does, we assume, find happiness.

A measure of how good the series is – and how it is so adept at manipulating the views (and it is my dying contention that in all its forms ‘art’ is nothing, and I mean nothing, more than successful manipulation of the viewer, reader and listener. The more successful the manipulation, the better the art. Basta. An unfashionable description, perhaps, but true) was one of the – or possibly the - final scenes in the last episode of the last series. We are first given the acceptable, accessible, wished-for conclusion, a happy ending in which Hewes and Parsons are reconciled after all their difficulties. Ahhhh. But this is then shown to have been nothing more than Hewes’s wish fulfilment, showing just how deep into herself she has sunk.

We then get the real, the true ending, the kind of thing which happens in real life (or, I am bound to say, usually happens in real life. Perhaps the Tooth Fairy does exist, who am I to say it doesn’t). No reconciliation. None. That would not have been Patty Hewes. Patty Hewes will die alone, unmourned and in obscurity.

. . .

I have spent the past few weeks watching one episode a night. Then it ended, and, dear reader, I felt an emptiness. I needed something to fill the gap. And that’s when, almost by chance I came across Ray Donovan. I first heard of it when proof-reading the TV pages of the paper I work for. So, looking for something else to watch, I looked it up. And it is good. Different to Damages, and different to The Sopranos, although it has be called a Sopranos lookalike. Bollocks. It is its own series and very good it is, too. I look forward to watching the rest of series one and series two, which, I’m assured has been commissioned.

. . .

Finally, doesn’t young Bridget Donovan (Kerris Dorsey) look uncannily, and unfortunately, like that arch fraud Quentin Taratino?

Sorry Kerris, but that's life. I'm not picture book either (any more).